How to (appear to) disappear completely

Here’s a puzzler for you, my fellow higher ed marketers:

Let’s say you’ve got a big new thing to promote — a brand new academic offering, or a new crowdfunding campaign, or an event unlike any other before it — and you’re responsible for developing the rollout. What do you do?

Well, here’s what you most likely won’t do: Schedule a meeting with your university leadership and say, “Here’s my idea: We delete all the content from our social media sites, turn our website into a blank page and send out postcards to our prospective [students, donors, attendees] with this cryptic message that nobody can figure out. The postcard is unbranded. No logo, no return address, our name isn’t on the card — it’s totally mysterious!”

You’d probably end up being escorted out of the meeting by campus security — and perhaps to your campus counseling center.

Because that’s not the way we do marketing, right? In the words of that eSurance commercial-turned-meme, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.”

It worked for Radiohead, though.

Last week, the British rock band did all of those counter-intuitive things to build buzz for its new album, which was scheduled for digital release today, a Sunday (rather than on a Friday, which is the usual drop date for new albums). But last Monday, media outlets were puzzled over the unannounced disappearance of Radiohead’s online presence.

Radiohead has erased itself from the Internet, screamed Gizmodo’s May 2 headline.

The Guardian points out that Radiohead.com is a blank page. On Twitter, it appears that “@Radiohead hasn’t tweeted yet.”And 12 million users like a Radiohead Facebook page with no content. Meanwhile, fans have received cards in the post from the band which say “Sing the song of sixpence that goes ‘Burn the witch’.”

All of this is now old news, of course. A few days later, Radiohead released a claymation video of the single “Burn the Witch” on YouTube, posted a teaser on Instagram, and rebooted the Radiohead website and social media presence, and the as-yet-unnamed new album (update: it’s called A Moon Shaped Pool) was about to be released — everything once again in its right place, so to speak.

Surprise! Disrupting disruption

Radiohead isn’t the only musical artist to shake things up recently. In April, Beyonce surprise-dropped her latest album, Lemonade, as a visual album/short film on Tidal. In early March, Kendrick Lamar sprung another surprise by releasing an album/collection of tracks titled (or un-titled?) untitled unmastered. And now Meghan Trainor is streaming her new album Thank You ahead of its release date.

Perhaps no business has been disrupted as heavily or as abruptly as the music industry. Online music stores like iTunes and Amazon pushed CD purchases aside, and then streaming services like Spotify, Rdio (rest in peace) and now Apple Music are doing the same thing to the online music sellers. Now, it seems, musicians are disrupting the disrupters with new — and not-so-new — approaches to promoting their work.

Both Beyonce and Radiohead embraced a mix of online and offline approaches to build buzz about their new releases. “Radiohead’s combination of a direct mail approach with its social media erasure made its single release all the more effective,” writes Shona Ghosh on the UK site Campaign, and “Beyonce, similarly, relied on traditional media first and foremost, unveiled the first song from Lemonade, ‘Formation’ at the Super Bowl halftime show, before releasing the album trailer and the album itself on HBO for, most likely, an unthinkably expensive media budget.”

Will it work for higher ed?

But, back to that imaginary pitch session with your president and the cabinet. Can you convince them that Radiohead’s tactics would work for the rollout of your new initiative? (We won’t even consider Beyonce’s approach, since the budget for a Super Bowl commercial is beyond the reach of any college or university ad spend.)

Even if you could convince them, would it work for you?

Not likely, according to PR Week‘s Diana Bradley.

While Radiohead’s radio silence “actually gained more attention and broke through the clutter of ‘loud and predictable’ artist marketing campaigns,” Bradley writes, any similar approach must be authentic and “on brand,” and must play well to the target audience.

“Radiohead’s move wasn’t a shock to the public because the group has a history of doing disruptive stunts for album releases,” Bradley continues. For instance, when the band released In Rainbows online in 2007, “it made the album available on a pay-what-you-want basis to consumers.”

Bradley quotes marketing director Alyssa Garnick of WE Communications, who notes, “Radiohead had a historical right to do this stunt. They are known for doing innovative things that haven’t been done before.”

So, even if such a disappearing act wouldn’t work in our sector, it’s a good reminder that sometimes shouting loudly to gain attention in a noisy marketplace isn’t always the best approach.

From time to time, we marketers would do well to ask ourselves a question from an old Radiohead tune, “Why don’t you quiet down?”

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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